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Surviving Student Accommodation Landlords

Students often experience some of the worst housing conditions in the country, yet their voices are often marginalised and ignored. The issue has worsened, to the extent that student housing has essentially become a joke, with various popular culture depictions portraying the often disgusting conditions in which students are forced to live.

Fresh Meat provides a prime example of this; while it might seem hyperbolic at first glance, for those who didn’t go to university or who were privileged enough to be able to spend extortionate amounts on purpose-built student accommodation. Even students who can afford this, still face problems with the standard of accommodation and value for money available.

However, slug trails, mould, broken windows, burglaries and malfunctioning boilers are all issues that students are faced with regularly. This is not hyperbole, it is reality.

I have spoken to many of my friends and family members about student housing and nobody was surprised by my experiences of substandard housing and neglectful landlords. Everybody knows that this is happening. In my own experience, I have dealt with broken windows not being fixed for four months, mice, slugs, mould, no heating or hot water for weeks, windows with no curtains that woke me up at sunrise everyday and landlords turning up unannounced during a pandemic without masks.

Throughout this pandemic hundreds of students have posted on platforms such as TikTok, showing leaking ceilings, broken kitchen equipment and rat infestations. So it begs the question of why this is allowed to continue. It is a woeful neglect of young people and it leaves students incredibly vulnerable and living in awful conditions. 

This isn’t only a problem with students privately-renting, it is also a problem with student accommodation, whether provided directly through the university or a third party provider. As the Guardian reported, student accommodation ‘doesn’t officially classify as housing…as it falls outside a specific use class, it doesn’t have to adhere to the usual standards associated with dwellings’. It means that student housing is often treated as either a hotel (C1) or residential institution i.e. care home or hospital (C2), because these types of accommodation are not intended for prolonged residence, there are far fewer regulations when it comes to space and daylight.

The responsibility for the poor conditions and facilities that students endure in purpose-built student housing lies directly with universities and third parties. Universities have, or should have, a duty of care to their students and exploiting gaps in housing regulations completely contradicts this moral obligation. 

There is a huge divide in student cities, between aging university-owned student accommodation that is in dire need of refurbishment, and brand-new purpose-built accommodation often in city centres. For the majority of students, choosing their university accommodation for the first time they are faced with a dilemma: spend all or the vast majority of their student loan on quality accommodation and struggle with living costs for the year or have more money to enjoy their first year of university life, but live in poor housing.

Most students choose the latter and while it might seem like a good compromise for them, students should not have to choose between having enough student loan to survive, and living in adequate housing.  

Part of this comes down to a lack of understanding about tenants’ rights among students. I’d argue that the blame for this lies with the universities themselves. They clearly understand the position that young people are in when they arrive at university. Yet, they don’t provide any real information to students about their rights with regards to renting. The vast majority of young people rent for the first time at university and so this kind of information would be crucial to these students. Why is none provided? 

ACORN renter’s union has been working hard in many major student cities to provide students with more information about their rights. Additionally, they have taken action on behalf of students who are struggling with neglectful landlords, such as their recent action in Manchester when ‘over 25 ACORN members marched on the business address of Zear Property who left university student Kelsey in squalid living conditions so bad, that she was forced to move cross-country back to her hometown in the middle of the pandemic.’

While, of course, it is great that students have groups on their side in these situations and this support is clearly needed, it should be the landlords themselves and universities that are taking action. Additionally, it is clear that gaps in regulations surrounding student accommodation needs to be resolved. 

It is interesting then, that when young people attempt to make their voices heard about their housing experiences they are often dismissed and deemed irrelevant or naive. The state of the housing market at present means that it will likely be decades before current university students are able to put down a deposit on a first house, and so their experiences of renting are incredibly valid.

Moreover, if young people do not know their rights with regards to tenancies and are taken advantage of during their university study, they will likely continue to be taken advantage of once they graduate. This creates more opportunities for landlords to cut corners, provide substandard accommodation and charge extortionate prices for the privilege. 

The government has argued that it has introduced measures to protect students in student housing and this is woefully inaccurate. Although protections have been put in place regarding deposits, and this has been a welcome development, there is much more that needs to be done. This government announcement suggests that more has been done to make sure that landlords resolve problems quickly, yet this is just not being seen implemented in reality.

From my personal experience, I had to wait for three months for our heating to be fixed, despite being in constant contact with my landlord asking them to resolve the issue. Landlords certainly seem to exploit the lack of understanding of the rights of tenants at present and government action has done little to resolve this. 

We need real, robust action from universities to provide useful information to students from the moment they apply, months before they will need to choose accommodation. Young people need to be aware of their options, realistic expectations and rights before they enter into any contracts. Some universities provide lists of approved landlords, who do not attempt to take advantage of students, while other universities actively attempt to discourage any such lists being made.

Universities need to be standing up for their student populations and working with local councils to ensure that private student housing is up to scratch. MPs also need to be raising this issue, to draw attention to the increasing disparity between aging student accommodation and modern expensive accommodation, but also to amend legislation to make sure that student housing is adequately regulated.

Greater consultation with students over their housing experiences would help to identify major problems and explore mitigation. Our experiences are valid and they represent a significant problem of landlords having too much power that is present throughout our housing sector. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Amy Dwyer</span></strong>
Amy Dwyer

Amy is the Chair of the Young Fabians Education Network, Founder of the University of Manchester Young Fabians and Co-Secretary for Labour Doorstep.

Alongside this, Amy is also studying for her MA Politics and is standing as the Labour candidate for Longton and Hutton West in the South Ribble Borough Council By-Election.

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Rent controls: a retrospective

For more than 70 years, between the First World War and the late 1980s, the United Kingdom had a system of rent controls for private sector tenants.  The policy was, on almost every metric, a success – argues Nick Bano.

This middle portion of the 20th century stands in stark contrast to the housing conditions of the 21st: unlike today, there was no great housing or homelessness crisis; and the ‘homes fit for heroes’ and mass squatting campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s alleviated the worst of the of the scarcity caused by bomb damage.

In fact, as the brilliant 1939 film Tenants In Revolt shows us, mid-century working class housing campaigners were actively calling for “luxury flats” – a demand that has now become anti-gentrification groups’ ultimate bogeyman.  While today’s campaigners are forced to make insipid calls for the barest essentials of homelessness reduction, tenants under a rent control regime had moved on to demanding luxury.

Potted history: a consensus for rent controls

In 1915, reeling from a powerful rent strike movement in Glasgow that held the wartime government in check, Asquith’s administration passed the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act.  While it was designed a measure against wartime profiteering, the spirit of the 1915 Act remained in force almost uninterrupted until rent controls were finally dismantled in 1988.  Importantly, the government realised that rent controls have to go hand-in-hand with relatively secure tenancies, to stop landlords from escaping the law by evicting tenants and re-letting at a higher rent.  The 1915 Act therefore introduced security of tenure, too.

The rent control mechanism was immediately recognised as being important, popular and successful.  Just three years later the 1918 Hunter Committee found majority support for rent control among tenants and – strikingly – among landlords, too.  As a consequence, Parliament amended the 1915 Act slightly in 1919, before proper new legislation re-establishing rent controls (the Increase of Rent and Mortgages (Restriction) Act) was passed under Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition government in 1920.

Again, Parliamentary inquiries (the Onslow Committee of 1923, the Marley Committee of 1931 and the Ridley Committee of 1937) acknowledged on the broad success of the measures, and recommended the continuation of the rent control scheme (with some adjustments to the mechanics, and an increase in the number and type of de-controlled tenancies).  This slight watering-down was then reversed in 1939, as war loomed again.

After the Second World War rent controls remained in place. They continued to function reasonably well for more than 10 years, even after the Blitz had caused a genuine and serious scarcity of homes.  Neither the 1945 Labour government, nor the Conservative government that followed, abolished them.

The following Tory government, however, seriously weakened the system under the Rent Act 1957: rent controls were abolished for all new tenancies, and some more expensive existing tenancies.  This led to the system of ‘Rachmanism’ – where tenants were bullied out of their homes (or bullied into accepting new rents) – which effectively forms the model of the current oppressive system of ‘shorthold’ tenancies.  A new Labour government in 1964, however, re-introduced rent controls in short order.

The high point came in 1974.  Following yet another glowing report on the functioning of rent controls (by Hugh Francis QC in 1971), a Tory government extended rent controls to furnished as well as non-furnished accommodation.

The destruction of rent controls in 1988

By the mid-1980s the Thatcher government had decided that it wanted to create a housing market that wasn’t restrained by rent stabilisation measures, the disastrous effects of which we are experiencing today.

The genius of the Thatcher regime was that it never actually destroyed rent controls.  They still exist, although the controls are (unsatisfactorily) tied to the market rate: a tenant who disagrees with a proposed new rent is still entitled to complain to a tribunal, and the tribunal will not let the new rent exceed the market value.  But the 1988 Housing Act destroyed security of tenure, which is crucial to the functioning of a rent control system.  Landlords know that they can avoid the rent control measures by simply demand a new rent – any rent they like – and that they can evict the tenant quickly on a ‘no fault’ basis if they can’t or won’t pay the higher rate.  As a result, the formal system of controlled rent increases is almost never used.  Rent control was abolished by the back door.

For the last 30 years we have not just had a lack of effective rent controls.  Instead, because Thatcher’s aim was to generate a profitable housing market, the current system has rising rents by design.

A second, odd effect of the 1988 Act settlement is that rent controls became controversial.  That never used to be the case.  For most of the 20th century, opposition to rent controls was the exclusive domain of landlords, war profiteers and hard-line Tories. But since the 1990s there has been a looming sense that we are all Thatcherites now: that anyone who advocates a return to a long-standing legislative programme (propped up by decades’ worth of inquiries and reports) was somehow radical.

A shrinking private rented sector is a victory

The major effect of the rent control regime was the decimation of the private rented sector.  By the 1980s it had fallen to just 8% of homes in the UK.  This is, for anyone who is not a landlord, a triumph.  Privately rented housing is the least secure and most expensive form of tenure, and anyone who is housed elsewhere is almost certainly better off for it. 

How does this reduction happen?  Rent controls restrain the profitability of landlordism, and some landlords flee the market.  But a reduction in the number of rented homes does not, of course, reduce housing supply: ‘disappearing landlords’ do not cause homes to be knocked down or to be left unoccupied.  As the Bank of England’s John Lewis and Fergus Cumming explain here:

Some landlords will sell up as letting becomes less lucrative. But at the end of each sales chain is either another landlord or someone who was previously renting. If it’s another landlord, aggregate rental supply and demand are both unchanged, and so are rents. If it’s a new owner occupier, the supply of rented property has shrunk by one, but so has the number of renters. The tightness of the rental market and thus rents are unchanged”.

Even if this happens on a large scale, the glut of supply caused by retreating landlords will necessarily reduce house prices.  It is this policy, rather than the proven failures of help-to-buy, shared ownership and high-end speculative development, that will achieve various governments’ stated aim of increasing home ownership.  The contemporary history of the UK shows this to be correct, and no amount of abstract economic modelling can erase that.

There will always be people who prefer to rent privately, of course, and the market has always catered for them.  But those generous souls who would prefer to pay off a landlord’s mortgage rather than their own presumably make up a figure much closer to the 7% of the population that rented privately in the mid-1980s than the 20% (4.5 million households) forced to rent privately today.

The Renters’ Reform Bill

In 2019 it became both parties’ policy, and then a formal Queen’s Speech commitment, to abolish ‘no fault’ evictions.  In other words, we can expect some form of security of tenure to be restored to private tenants.  As set out above, security of tenure is the missing piece of the still-existing rent control framework (without ‘no fault’ evictions, unless the tenancy agreement has a provision for rent increases, landlords will have little choice but to increase rents by the formal, controlled system of statutory notices).

So the good news is that the Tories – whether they realise it or not – have now reverted to their 20th century position: they are now within the consensus that supports rent controls.  I, for one, welcome them back into the fold.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Nick Bano</span></strong>
Nick Bano

Nick Bano is a lawyer and housing activist.